Voters in Mississippi House District 88 will soon be without the representative they sent to Jackson. Rep. Ramona Q. Blackledge, who defeated Republican counterparts Gary Staples and Chris Hodge in the August primary and then outpaced Staples in a run-off three weeks later to win the seat, faced an opponent that she didn’t have enough votes to overcome.
That opponent, according to Blackledge, is Philip Gunn, the Mississippi speaker of the house.
Blackledge resigned from her House seat on Tuesday, Jan. 28 – and it became effective Friday, Jan. 31 – after Gunn reportedly took the stance that Blackledge and three other freshman lawmakers will in essence be “double-dipping” if they are allowed to continue in their elected offices with full pay and also receive the retirement benefits they earned while working for the state in other jobs over the years.
Although a special election will likely be held, Jones County Circuit Court Clerk Concetta Brooks said nothing will be done until the governor issues a writ to hold a special election. As of Monday morning, Feb. 3, Brooks’ office had not received any official notification from the state level. The governor generally issues such a writ within 30 days of a vacancy.
The federal primaries are scheduled for Tuesday, March 10 this year; however, that date will not work for a special election to fill the House District 88 vacancy, since state law requires that a minimum 60-day notice of the election be given. Also, the qualifying deadline for such an election must be 50 days before the election date.
Brooks roughly estimates that the cost for Jones County to host the special election will be $10,000.
Laurel resident Robin Robinson will be a candidate for the vacant seat, whenever the special election is held. That’s according to an announcement on her Facebook page on Feb. 1.
Blackledge worked for 40 years for Jones County, with much of her time being as the tax assessor-collector of the county.
The other freshmen lawmakers facing the same quandary are Republican representatives Dale Goodin of Richton, a retired educator; Billy Andrews of Lamar County, who has previously served in the House and as a county and youth court judge; and Jerry Darnell from Desoto County, a retired educator.
“The election of four PERS retirees, a judge, two educators and a tax assessor-collector, was politically historical,” wrote Blackledge in a letter to state officials, including Governor Tate Reeves, Attorney General Lynn Fitch and Gunn. “Our voters advocated a change to the landscape of Mississippi politics. But Speaker Philip Gunn has effectively silenced those voices. The man who should be our champion has chosen to be our adversary. He hammered this home in his private chamber on Friday, January 10th, after we were sworn in on January 6th. The landscape shall not be changed. Thus, he has successfully blocked our right to receive our retirement and serve and has prevented future retired state and county leaders from seeking office.”
In a memorandum dated January 13, Rep. Andrews addressed several state leaders, including Gunn and Speaker Pro Tem Jason White, and pointed out that in 2018 then Attorney General Jim Hood issued an opinion calling work in the Legislature “part-time.” Hood’s opinion also promoted the idea that PERS Retiree members have a right to serve as a representative or senator in the Mississippi Legislature without forfeiture of their PERS benefits. PERS is the Public Employees Retirement System.
However, according to Blackledge, Gunn recently conveyed to the quartet of freshmen lawmakers that he did not concur with Hood’s opinion, and he was not going to embrace a recent PERS policy change that would allow them to serve, with reduced compensation, but keep their PERS benefits. According to Andrews’ memo, the PERS Board adopted a regulation labeled “Reemployment after Retirement” that would permit a public sector retiree to “serve in the Mississippi House or Senate for a period of time not to exceed one-half of the normal working days or hours, as established by the employer, for one half of the salary in effect for the position. Or, the retiree may work and earn not in excess of twenty-five percent (25%) of the retiree’s average compensation.” Blackledge said that she, in accordance with the newly adopted stance by PERS, was willing to serve for 25 percent of her PERS established salary, if she could keep the retirement benefits she worked decades to build. She would also give up her daily per diem of $151 and pay for her food, lodging and expenses from the reduced salary she would draw. In addition she would forego additional committee compensation, and she would forfeit participation in the Supplemental Legislative Retirement Plan. She would be able to receive mileage pay from her home to the Capitol.
“I am fine with this. This is a part-time position,” she offered.
But three weeks after she was sworn in as the newly elected District 88 representative, it looks like working in the Legislature, even at a reduced salary, will not be an option for Blackledge.
“Speaker Gunn claims retirees would be ‘double-dipping.’ Please show me where. I would serve for 25 percent of my PERS established salary.”
“Speaker Gunn may claim the decision I am forced to make is not his fault or responsibility – blame it on Democrat Jim Hood, whose AG Opinion is considered a political maneuver and can be tossed in the can,” she penned in her letter to the state officials. “I certainly don’t blame Jim Hood. I applaud him. The future of Mississippi should not be viewed simply in terms of Democrat and Republican oppositions. I have always believed, and still believe, it’s about what is right and what is best for the people.”
Originally published on Jan. 28, 2020. Updated Feb. 3, 2020